Yesterday's page turners

Topics writers | books

Sorting out a cupboard full of books sent across by her retired parents to keep or discard, a friend was awash with nostalgia at spotting paperbacks of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham. These are not the sort of titles stocked by airport bookshops today, yet for much of the 20th century, writers such as du Maurier and Maugham were at the top of their game. Their output was prolific, sales seemingly invincible, and film adaptations by masters such as Alfred Hitchcock were adorned by the likes of Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier and Bette Davis.

A random sample among friends and colleagues of what they found on family bookshelves reveals, unsurprisingly, not how disparate reading tastes were in English-speaking households a generation ago, but how similar. Apart from compendiums of Shakespeare and Tagore, translations by S Radhakrishnan and C Rajagopalachari (of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

But who, nowadays, reads D H Lawrence’s once-banned novel, cause of a long obscenity trial, for its scattering of four-letter words? And who borrows or buys paperbacks by James Hadley Chase, Erle Stanley Gardner, Marie Corelli or Barbara Cartland? For decades, their sales were a publisher’s untarnished goldmine: Ms. Cartland alone produced 723 titles in her lifetime (1901-2000) and made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for penning 23 romances in one year. 

Fashions change, in everything from pizza toppings to nuclear reactors, and it’s difficult to pinpoint why many critically acclaimed and commercially successful writers fall off the literary map while others soldier on, untouched by the vicissitudes of time and taste. 

Consider the curious case of the India-born Durrell brothers. Lawrence, the elder, is justly famous for The Durrells (2016-19).  Film has contributed immeasurably to the longevity of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, a potent brew of sex, snobbery, sabotage and sadism.

P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie are the hardiest of perennials, their shelf life undimmed by the caprice of readers. “An anodyne to annoyances,” declared Evelyn Waugh of the creator of Bertie Wooster, adding, “Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.” The journalist and fiction writer John Lanchester ascribed Agatha Christie’s talent for fictional murder to her “complete belief in human malignity…in the end the reason one person murders another comes down to avarice and/or hate. She believed in evil as a plain fact about human beings and their actions.”

Unassailable since the early 19th century is the Jane Austen industry. The dissolution of Mr Darcy’s hauteur (and sphincter muscle) into drooling devotion at Lizzie Bennet’s feet has surmounted many strains of gender politics including the ravages of radical feminism. Pride and Prejudice has been filmed serialised six times; and in 2017 the writer Moni Mohsin wrote a delectable account of attending an “Austentatious Tea Party” in “Austenistan” organised by JASP (Jane Austen Society of Pakistan) in Lahore, with women in muslin gowns sipping Assam tea and nibbling cucumber sandwiches while waited upon by maids in shalwar kameez.

Like vintage clothing or retro design, the fickleness of changing tastes can also bring a writer back in fashion. Consider the fluctuating fortunes of Daphne du Maurier. Among Ms Du Maurier’s gifts was a cut glass pedigree. Granddaughter of a celebrated Punch cartoonist, her father Sir Gerald du Maurier was a rich and powerful actor-manager of the London stage. His friends included the young Alfred Hitchcock. Rebecca, published in 1938, was an instant hit, and contained many Hitchcock elements — a young bride, mysterious manor house, a drowning and an unseen serial seductress. Determined to conquer Hollywood, Hitchcock pitched the book to the movie mogul David O Selznick and sailed the Atlantic. Rebecca, the movie, swept audiences, critics and the Academy Awards in 1940. Alfred Hitchcock and Daphne du Maurier’s careers were sealed in gilt. 

Although there was a Bollywood version Kohraa (1960) with Waheeda Rehman, and Lalita Pawar as Mrs Danvers in an inspired piece of casting, the original with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine still has a 100 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And can there be a more invitingly escapist first line to ward off the tedium of the lockdown than, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley…”
Pandemic Perusing is an occasional freewheeling column on books and reading by our writers and reviewers

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